Stylistic differences between a 17th Century Baroque painter associated with the Catholic Counter Reformation and a 17th Century painter from the Netherlands

Please note this is a re-worked analysis after my tutor feedback for Assignment 3.

The Catholic Counter Reformation of the 16th century  responded to the Reformation by the Protestants with both the Council of Trent and the formation of the Society of Jesus in the 16th century and the art that followed was to conform to strict rules with direct and compelling presentation of narrative Biblical scenes.  In comparison and completely opposing the emotionally religious scenes of the Counter Reformation the Dutch republic coincided with the end of the 30 Years war and decline of Spain – its economy was founded on free enterprise during a time of great advances in sciences and mathematics and this in turn meant that the artists turned to painting scenes depicting the bourgeois prosperity the patrons now enjoyed.

300px-caravaggio_-_la_deposizione_di_cristoMichelangelo Merisi the man known as Caravaggio was a painter during the Baroque and Catholic Counter Reformation period and his naturalistic and highly emotionally charged works fitted exactly the requirements of the Council of Trent.

This image of the Entombment of Christ painted around 1601-1603 was painted as an altarpiece and is the very epitome of Caravaggio’s religious work and he has used his technique of tenebrism with the dark background contrasting with the light that is cast from a source coming from the top left to illuminate the figures – it falls directly onto Mary Magdalene’s face and the figures in front of her.  The composition is diagonal with the movement of the figures projecting downwards towards Christ’s lifeless body which is portrayed almost unbelievably naturally in tone including the sallow skin and blue tint to his lips.  The colour palette is one of muted tones which does not distract from the religious spectacle.   The whole image is one of emotionally charged theatre which is direct and compelling and typical of the work of Caravaggio and typical of his religious works of the time.

the-milkmaidIn contrast Jan Vermeer’s painting of the Milkmaid which was completed around 1657-58 is restrained and austere.  The patron was a wealthy private collector and yet the work is of a a domestic servant with indications she had romance on her mind – the foot-warmer in the bottom right was a common symbol that romance was in the air.

The work is of a normal domestic scene with an abundance of bread on the table and the milkmaid’s clothes are painted using  vivid primary colours of blue, yellow and red with the tones being repeated around the work providing unity and harmony which in turn creates a happy calm scene.  The light that comes from the window to the left  enables you to see the whole scene in front of you unlike the tenebrism of Caravaggio.  Lastly the composition is on a central vertical axis unlike the  theatrical compositions of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Jan Vermeer’s work perfectly illustrates the art of the Dutch Golden Age portraying the domestic scenes of ordinary people as they went about their lives and the patrons expressed their enjoyment of their wealth.


Bernard Fischer. 2011.  Caravaggio Entombment of Christ [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia of Art History. (date unknown).

Encyclopedia of Art History. (date unknown).  Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (1560-1700) [online].  [Date Accessed:  October – November 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia of Art History. (date unknown).  Dutch Baroque Painting (c.1600-80) [online].  [Date Accessed:  October – November 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia of Art History. (date unknown).  The Entombment of Christ (1601-03) [online].  [Date Accessed:  October – November 2016].  Available from:

escodavi. 2009.  Johann Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:

Jansen, J. 2001-2016. A Brief Overview of the Dutch Art Market in the 17th Century [online].  [Date Accessed:  October – November 2016].  Available from:

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2016.  Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [online]. [Date Accessed: October – November 2016].  Available from:

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